Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lines and Sprays

A man spoke with me. I had my camera to my eye, taking a picture of some of the graffiti that covered a wall on Kastanienallee. So, at first I did not pay attention.

Quickly though, my camera fell to my chest and I looked at him. He was slightly taller than I, a healthy, athletic man in his late sixties who wore well his corduroy trousers, sweater and finely tailored sports jacket. His white hair swirled from a careful clipping and time this morning to set it well, while his beard was a well conceived, short carpet of white that covered his jaw and laid a floor for his eyes. A sharp blue, they still had a gleam of humor and pleasure.

“Its a problem. You paint your wall and the next morning they have come and smeared all over it,” he said waving his arm with the motion of smearing.

We talked a bit. He is from Baviaria, Munich, and has been coming to Berlin for twenty years, essentially since the wall fell. He likes Berlin, but his accent is noticeably an educated High German with a southern sound. It is not the shifted sounds and closed voice of the Berlin dialect. He says he still lives in Munich though he is retired now. He comes to Berlin a lot and spends a lot of time here, because his daughter lives here. She was one of those young Germans who came here following the wall’s fall in search of something new and different.

He bought an apartment in Berlin, in Prenzlauerberg, and thinks he will spend much more time here. He likes Berlin, it is now the capital, and more importantly he wants to be close to his daughter.

But he came back to his frustration with the graffiti. It broke the sense of order and discipline that seemed to guide his life, and his sense of orderly care for ones property. Again he used the words “smeared” as if graffiti were a kind of rancid butter slathered over walls as an attack. He felt frustrated in his, or anyone’s, ability to fend it off.

He asked where I was from and we spoke about the US and my trip for a bit, before he bid me a good day, the “schöne tag” that seems almost as universal here as the “have a nice day” is at home, and sauntered up the street while taking his morning walk.

Feeling a little guilty because of my fascination with the graffiti I continued taking pictures. But my first was of a massive advertisement with a wild, white horse on the wall next to some graffiti.

Though I did not realize it at the time, I broke with a convention by doing so. Feeling guilty and a bit rebellious against my own bourgeois self reflected by what in Spanish would be called “el hombre de bien” the man of good, I just immediately snapped the picture. I then returned to the graffiti that I felt was my transgression. I was recording that which at least in the eyes of the man, I presumed, was seen as bad. And I was fascinated with it.

I am not alone. You can buy a calendar here for 2010 filled with pictures of Berlin’s graffiti and post cards of tags are sold along side pictures of the Cathedral’s green dome. But I did not yet know that, I just knew there was so much of it in my neighborhood, some quite enchanting, and I wanted to take pictures while I figured it out.

I thought I was being transgressive by calling it wall art in my mind. Hah. As I found out, the calendar is called “Berlin Wall Art.” So much for my attempts at originality.

Nevertheless, I saw the advertising as a kind of art on walls, just like graffiti and many other decorative details. Though cliched, I found out, that idea bridged me into photographing advertising. I also was thinking about context and advertising is an important part of the spaces that are often tagged, smeared.

Online, I saw a clip of a sprayer, a graffiti artist here in Berlin giving a workshop on how to tag. Evidently, like advertising, the graffiti is both informal--your neighbor laying a tag on your wall, and highly organized into recognized troupes of graffiti artists, cliques of sprayers. And, they move across national boundaries. Though Berlin is known, and takes self notice, of its graffiti, its artists travel and spray in other cities and countries, and their artists come here. A sprayer from Barcelona is particularly commented on these days. Graffiti is a monde, a world, I don’t know if demi, haute, or some other modifier.

With galleries showing the work of sprayers, lines of clothing and stores showing its esthetic and style, despite its edge graffiti is increasingly mainstream and bourgeois in Berlin.

In all of this, it is like advertising, although I do not wish to draw the comparison too tightly. I have a different purpose in mind.

Like graffiti, advertising’s nature as art can, and is challenged. While in the case of graffiti it is the ephemeral nature, the violation of property rights, and the “be-smearing” of order, in the case of the advertising it is its utilitarianism and its ephemeral nature that seems to disqualify it. And, this almost two generations after Andy Warhol. Yikes.

Much, much later, I realized I was calling into question the line that separates graffiti from advertising and official forms of public art, as well as the bourgeoisified versions of graffiti. I had broken the bounds of the idea that private property rights guarantee the agency to decide what to do with the property. That was the uncrossable line that seemed to separate the two. Even though commercial graffiti tries to keep them firmly hidden and well stitched together.

Order, cropped beards, tailored jackets, fresh-painted walls were forms in which merit and value find representation. They stemmed from a ground that the look of some thing could be seen as a reflection of its owner’s moral character as judged in his management of his property.

Here I was with my disciplined black Nikon, wearing my faux leather, vinyl jacket, and my black alpaca sweater combined with dark brown slacks and good leather shoes taking pictures of explosions of letters and figures on walls, that appeared over night and changed regularly, almost daily. Some were spray painted while some were glued prints, and some were combinations. Some where statues, and some were plaques, while others were neon business signs. They all were claims on my attention.

And they all were riots of color, against the proper sedateness of building paint, clothing, and “good,” public design. Well maybe not the statues and plaques, but we will have to come back to that another time, or just refer you to Michael Taussig's recent book. The other two were riotuous, whether the public action poster of superman saving a life and encouraging us to be super heros by donating our organs, my white, wild horse, or the fluid scrawl of a tag. Even the advertising seemed a break with discipline, although it claimed to support public virtue through its relationship with private property.

It did not just appear anywhere. But was slathered--the action of putting paste on paper and smoothing it against a surface--on private surfaces with their owner's permission, usually with the payment of a fee. And it is regulated by public bodies that decide where slathered paper can be found.

Oddly enough, the graffiti does not just appear anywhere either. It does challenge public authority and makes strong claims to public attention, such as the brilliant tags that flowered in the Senefelderplatz, and Rosa Luxemburg Platz U-Bahn stations Friday night. They partially covered the official signs on the wall, that announced the stations.

At the side of one creative tag that was both a series of multi-colored letters and an urban scape in the brightness of sunrise, were roughly sprayed lines that said “Good morning Berlin. Sometimes you are so hateful.”

In the other station was a tag by the side of another creative work that argued the sprayer was Monet.

Monet greeting and telling the city at the same time it is so hateful. There really is something of high art in that attitude, the very same thing that both draws and offends the bourgois who are the buyers and supporters of art.

But isn’t there also something of that attitude, although much more condescending, in the art that appeared on bus stops and walls all over the city using comic book heros, like superman coming to the last-minute rescue to say “you too can save a life by being an organ donor.” Or even the quasi official “Berlin united: We are one people.” If you have to say it so brightly and loudly it probably ain’t completely true, just as the verbal attacks on the police aren't completely true either.

Today, as I watch a pigeon nestle on a ledge across the street, under thick clouds and a light falling rain, and people scurry under their umbrellas, I think that if we remove private property from the equation of graffiti, and advertising, we are left with demands on publics, hortatory announcements and evocations. They are like the road sign in blue I am looking at outside this cafe's window with an arrow swinging to the right. They tell us what they want us to do and how they want us to act, whether that is their conscious intention or not.

Analysts here say that the rich graffiti of Berlin is part of its heritage of struggle against the East German government and its firm structure of authority. At moments like that struggle, or during the dictatorships I have seen in Bolivia, graffiti is a way of challenging the police who support the dictatorship. It also is a way of communicating quickly and rapidly.

It is tempting, of course, to say that graffiti even now is that kind of challenge to authority. And some of it is, in the way it breaks rules of private property, and in its open “Fuck the Police” or like one stenciled mark I saw yesterday, “No intelligent head passes under a helmet”. It, like the people who somewhat furtively cross the street when the lights are red, despite the glares of those standing and waiting, is flagrantly violating those rules.

But, in another way, it supports the rules that create a public space, including the walls of houses and buildings, and expects them to demonstrate public virtue. The virtue, they may challenge, but the rules of space and the ways those invoke publics they seem to respect.

So, that is what I think on this grey, wet day. I look out at a post covered with posters for events, one after another, as if it were bundled up like the people passing by it. Because of the rain, some of its layers are peeling off and some are crumpled and falling apart of the paving stones. But it is there, performing a public function. Oddly, I see the graffiti as claiming to perform a public function too while claiming the space to do so.

I shall keep taking pictures, of the graffiti and of other public calls and claims on people. Those are what truly fascinate me, especially now that Berlin's graffiti seems oddly conservative.

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